Ballinger, Texas (CNN)Beto O'Rourke, his wife Amy and two staffers -- one streaming it all live on Facebook -- all pile out of a maroon Dodge Caravan rental at the courthouse here on a recent Friday afternoon.
Beto O’Rourke, his wife Amy and two staffers -- one streaming it all live on Facebook -- all pile out of a maroon Dodge Caravan rental at the courthouse here on a recent Friday afternoon.
They were in Runnels County Tuesday, April 10, a county where Donald Trump won 86% of the vote in 2016, and met with Republican County Judge Barry Hilliard and to which issues are on his mind. The first thing out of Hilliard’s mouth: Second Amendment rights are under attack. “It’s a dire situation,” he said.
The two debated gun control measures briefly. “I’ll be the first to admit I have a lot to learn about it,” O’Rourke politely conceded, even as he explained that AR-15s leave exit wounds the size of an orange.
But the point wasn’t debating gun control -- it was that O’Rourke showed up in Runnels County at all.
“It felt like we got a real, substantive conversation,” O’Rourke said afterward.
Hilliard did too.
"He's a very nice young man," Hilliard said of their meeting. "He still follows the (Democratic) party line."
And people watched: 9,000 Facebookers tuned in for his meeting with Hilliard in Runnels County. That’s a small audience for an O’Rourke livestream, but it’s nearly double the number of people who voted in the 2016 presidential election in Runnels County.
“Beto’s like a Beatle. I mean, there’s like Beto-mania,” said Laura Moser, one of the two Democrats in a runoff to take on Rep. John Culberson for a Houston-area House seat.
David Rosen, the Midland County Democratic chairman, after about 250 people turned out to hear O’Rourke on a Saturday morning, said the crowd was dotted with people who typically vote for Republicans.
“It’s not only the moment, it’s him,” Rosen said of O’Rourke. “He’s energetic, he speaks well, he conveys his ideas well, and he acknowledges that he is not a far-left Democrat, a far-right Democrat -- he’s concerned about getting things done, and he reaches across the aisle. And people love that.”
As the van pulls away, he hops out for a picture by a statue in front of the courthouse.
That was 234 of the 254 counties in Texas down -- 20 to go.
Stops like Runnels County on a recent six-day, 1,600-mile road trip are at the heart of O’Rourke’s effort to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz and become the first Democrat to win statewide in Texas in 24 years -- in part by showing up and convincing voters in often-ignored regions that he cares about their interests.
O’Rourke will need these voters to have a shot at winning.
In his March primary, O’Rourke won just 62% of the Democratic vote. It’s a reality that O’Rourke chalks up to a travel schedule and online advertising push built with the general election in mind, but it shows he still has to sell himself to the Democratic base, too.
Republicans also bested Democrats in turnout in the primary, with 1.3 million voting for Cruz compared to 644,632 votes for O’Rourke. In order to defeat Cruz, O’Rourke will have to win over voters who haven’t voted for a Democrat statewide in over two decades.
The stakes are high: An O’Rourke win could give Democrats a shot at winning control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections. And after a long string of disappointments -- including Wendy Davis’s 21-point loss in the governor’s race four years ago -- Democrats here say they’re ready to try something different.
And that something different might be shunning the support of national Democrats and progressive groups.
O’Rourke, the 45-year-old congressman who spent the early ’90s as the bass player in the punk rock band Foss, raised a stunning $6.7 million from 141,000 people in 2018′s first three months -- by far the best of all this year’s Senate candidates in both parties. That’s all despite a pledge not to take any money from political action committees. It’s a step beyond what other candidates have promised before: In addition to rejecting corporate cash, O’Rourke is turning down checks from PACs run by left-leaning groups whose positions he strongly supports.
Instead, he’s relying on a massive base of small-dollar donors cultivated by Revolution Messaging, the firm behind Bernie Sanders’ vaunted 2016 digital operation -- as well as personal appeal that comes in part from showing up in places where many Democrats say they haven’t seen a statewide candidate since Ann Richards.
He told a Bernie Sanders supporter in Midland on Saturday that he didn’t want Sanders, Hillary Clinton or any other outsiders in Texas campaigning for him.
He also pledged to leave the political stage quickly: He’d only serve two terms, he said in Midland.
And if O’Rourke is successful, national Democrats -- including 2020 presidential campaigns -- could learn lessons from his race.
The one O’Rourke said he hopes is adopted by other Democrats: Rejecting not just corporate money but all political action committee contributions. He said he sees it as responsible for his online fundraising bonanza.
“That’s a game-changer,” O’Rourke said. “It’s just wrong. Interests are paying for access. And it’s confusing to people -- is my member of Congress voting for this interest or corporation or are they for me?”
Celinda Hawkins, editor of the Runnels County Register contributed to this report.